Archive for the ‘Vacations & Leisure’ Category

London in the Snow!

I woke up this morning to some serious snowfall outside of my window. The rooftops of neighboring buildings were laced in snow and cars were covered with inches of powder. After getting my morning workout in, I headed to the local Starbucks in Covent Garden to meet up with Steve, a friend of a friend who’s in town as part of a whirlwind tour of Europe (in true backpacking form). We spent the day touring around Central London and as I was showing him around, I realized how different (and beautiful) London looks when it’s covered in snow! It gave me a whole new perspective of the city. Check out our little tour through snow-covered parts of town:

Trafalgar in the winterAfter cutting through Covent Garden and checking out the Piazza, we made our way to tourist hot-spot, Trafalgar Square. Check out the water — frozen over!

National Gallery in WinterWhile we were there, we hit up the always amazing National Gallery. We were in and out in about thirty minutes, but we caught some great glimpses of Monet, Cezanne & Van Gogh. I always forget how pretty this place is inside!

After passing the Buckingham area, we made our way to Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey to snap some pictures. So pretty!

Big Ben & the London EyeAfter checking out the sights (and before grabbing delicious lunch at Pizza Express), we took an alternate route back and stumbled upon quite possible the prettiest place in London! The bird-covered pond looked absolutely gorgeous with the snow all around, plus it made for some pretty incredible pictures.

We also made some cute new friends!

All around super fun day. If you haven’t been out in the snow yet, it’s a must! It’s definitely a chance to see everything in a whole new way.

Lots of love,

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Edinburgh: In Hindsight

I’m delayed in the airport by an hour… somehow I’m not surprised. After a couple of flight cancellations and snow ravaging all UK airports, an hour delay seems like the least of my problems.

With my short jaunt in Edinburgh, hotel stays in the Old and New Towns, loads of sightseeing and a day trip to the Highlands, I crammed a lot into five short days and there are some things I would have done differently, had I known before-hand. Don’t get me wrong – everything was amazing and Edinburgh really is a fantastic city, but cities this beautiful come with loads of tourist traps! Here are a few tid bits I’ve gained from my recent excursion:

Getting to Edinburgh

Ohhh… Lord. After so many flight cancellations and delays, I would now opt for taking the train from London! Obviously your plan of attack for getting to Edinburgh is going to vary based on your current location, but be aware that there are a number of ways to get to the city.

1. Fly. Something I’m not fond of anymore, but it’s quick if you’re going from London (1 hour, 20 minutes). With EasyJet, BMI and other discount airlines, you can get some seriously good deals, too!

2. Take the Train! Virgin Trains, East Coast… they’ll all get you there, and most for under £40 – £50 if you book in advance! Sometimes they have some really great deals! Expect it to take 4-1/2 to 6 hours depending on the number of stops, but you’ll get to take in some of the English countryside and some trains (East Coast) even have wi-fi!

3. Jump on the Coach. With National Express, you can get funfares for as low as £12 – £15 if you book at the right time… they’re definitely good for the budget traveler, but be ready to spend a loooonnng time on board. 7 – 10 hours is a good estimate depending on the weather.

New Town vs. Old Town

My first temporary home, the Royal British Hotel, was in the New Town on Princes Street directly across from Waverly Station. Looking down the road, the street was very reminiscent of Oxford Street in London: loads of shopping mixed with a bit of culture (Royal Scottish Academy, National Gallery, etc.). A few minutes walk into the New Town, you hit St. Andrew’s Square where you can catch a bus to Rosslyn Chapel and visit the likes of Louis Vuitton and Harvey Nichols. Definitely a modern shopper’s paradise! [The picture below is of me on Princes Street in front of the Christmas markets.]

My second stop was Jury’s Inn in the  Old Town of Edinburgh, right off of the Royal Mile. Like I had mentioned right after my jaunt over, there is a palpable difference between the Old and New Towns. Instead of Harvey Nichols and H&M, you’ll run into St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh Castle and loads of kilt makers and Celtic jewelry stores. The roads are less perfectly paved and have more of the cobblestone and narrow alleys that you would expect of the old world.

[This shot was taken from the St. Giles area, looking down the Royal Mile in Old Town.]

Although it’s a matter of preference, I found the Old Town a lot more charming. Keep in mind, the invisible line that separates New from Old in Edinburgh is the rail station, essentially. If you cross through Waverly Station or cross over North Bridge, you can move easily from one area to another. If you’re on Princes Street or the Royal Mile, you’re pretty central!

Hotel Recommendations

Our two-day, unplanned stay at the Royal British Hotel was actually a pleasant surprise. Due to its proximity to the rail station, I wasn’t expecting much, but was quite surprised by the size and comfort of the rooms, the free wi-fi (never to be underestimated!) and cute café downstairs (Princes Street Café) where you can get a morning coffee plus a morning treat for £1.75. The prices were more than reasonable considering the last-second booking and the holiday season. You’re looking at between £51 – £65 per night and a comfortable size for two people.

Jury's Inn Room

The Jury’s Inn in the Old Town is also great, but for different reasons. My room was huge and my view was incredible. With three massive windows peering out into the snow-capped city, I really felt like I ended up with someone’s suite! The bathroom was also huge, with a full-sized bathtub for actually taking a bath (something I haven’t done in months)! It’s proximity to Old Town (the Royal Mile is in the hotel’s backyard) make it a prime location, plus it’s around one-third of a mile from the train station! The downside? Wi-fi is far from free. I had to rely on the web on my iPhone and the free wi-fi from the pub down the way [The Mitre] for most of my online needs. I would recommend this place for its comfort and spaciousness, but be aware of the internet situation – that was almost disappointing enough to nullify my love for this place. I got a great deal when I booked with Expedia (£200 for R/T tickets + 3 nights at this hotel), but a room here normally goes for £99+ a night.

Also, if you’re super budgeting, there are loads of hostels along the Royal Mile that would be worth checking out… do a bit of homework though, sometimes the £10 per night saved isn’t worth sharing a bathroom with 8 strangers!

Tourist Attractions

There are loads of attractions nearby: Edinburgh Castle, Camera Obscura and world of illusions, Haunted Tours, Rosslyn Chapel, Christmas Markets, Lyceum Theatre, Highlands tours, the National Gallery… the list goes on and on. So, if you’re here for a few days, what was worth the money? Well, that’s a matter of preference of course, but let me give you the down low on where I spent my money and where I would take it back, if possible. Keep in mind, in the winter the days are incredibly short with the sun disappearing entirely by 4P or 430P. With only a few hours of sunlight, you probably want to make the most out of every minute!

Freebies to Note:

There were a few freebies that I wasn’t aware of before heading to Edinburgh. I wish I would have known about them before my adventures, but they’re worth noting:

  1. A free tour of Edinburgh on foot! Although I didn’t partake in the tour, it leaves from the Starbucks in Old Town and it’s about 2 hours of sightseeing around Edinburgh. It’s definitely something that would be worth checking out early on in your excursion; good way to get acquainted with the area before undertaking your own adventures.
  2. National Galleries of Scotland. If this is anything like the National Gallery in London, it’s worth checking out. Plus, it’s free so even if it’s not exactly what you’re expecting, your only loss is a few minutes of time.
  3. Free ghost tour from Deacon Brodie’s Pub. Edinburgh is widely considered to be one of the most haunted cities in the world, so why not check out a ghost tour? There are tours like this that you can pay for (£5 – £10 depending on the company and length of tour), but there’s also this freebie! I probably would have checked it out if I were with someone… I didn’t want to scare myself silly while traveling alone. :)

Edinburgh Castle

£11 for entry with discounts for children & seniors but no discounts for students! If I had to go back and do it again, I probably would have saved the £11 and spent it elsewhere. You can walk up to the Castle and take some amazing pictures from the ticketing area without having to pay the entry fee. The views from the top are seriously gorgeous and worth the trek, but the money to get into the castle is only worth it if you’re with someone who loves the history that you’ll find within the castle. If I were with my dad, I would have been 100% more satisfied with the entirety of the situation. The pictures of the façade are what you want anyway, so only go in if you’re wanting to check out old chapels, museums, etc. See the amazing picture above? No entry fee required & it’s my favorite one of the bunch!

Camera Obscura

[If I were tall & had crazy cankles?]

If you have kids, this is a super fun little place! You’re looking at £8.50 for adults, £6.75 for students and seniors, £5.75 for kiddos (5 – 15) and under 5’s go in free! The building is comprised of five floors of illusions (holograms, crazy mirrors, optical illusions, etc.) with the top floor containing the ‘camera obscura’ where you can get a visual tour of Edinburgh in 15 minutes! It’s actually really cool and the views from top floor are superb! Some of the best pictures that I got of the city were from the rooftop. Check these out:

I mean seriously? How great are these pictures? I have a lot more where that came from — the views are really unsurpassed. I had more fun in this building & ended up with cooler pictures than I did at the Castle!

Highlands Tour

As your recall from my recent post, I undertook the longest day tour available in all of Britain a few days ago! From Edinburgh, we traveled all the way up to Loch Ness and Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. The tour was £34 (£36 for non-students) and comprised 400+ miles and 13 hours of tour time. The tour showed me a completely different side of Scotland, plus I got to do a Loch Ness cruise! How many people get to say that? I would say that the tour was definitely worth the money considering how much was covered and the quality of the tour guide. My only recommendation though would be taking Timberbush up on their 2 or 3-day Highlands tour, instead! I thought we covered a little too much in one short day — for a bit more money you can have a much more full experience.

Lyceum Theatre

I must say, just a few days ago I was so proud of myself for snagging my Peter Pan tickets for £11 with my student ID card! It seems like a great deal at the time considering adult tickets normally go for £22. Sadly, the play was not only a waste of £11, it was also a waste of three good hours that I could have spent elsewhere, taking in the sights. I don’t know if I had particularly high expectations or if the show was just a bit of a let down, but there are definitely better ways to spend your money. Some locally made Scotch, perhaps (Dalwhinnie)?

Christmas Markets

Who doesn’t love to feel like a kid during Christmastime? Ice skating, a German market, loads of fun Christmas goodies, a ferris wheel and mulled wine… Mmm… The whole area can be accessed from Princes Street (at The Mound) and it’s 100% free to meander! Bring some cash for mulled wine and Christmas treats, though!

Rosslyn Chapel

Ahhh… Rosslyn Chapel. Who has read the DaVinci Code and not wanted to visit this place? I had planned on visiting (you can easily access it by hopping on Bus 15/15A from St. Andrew’s Square in the New Town), but decided to save that for my next journey to Scotland. With my dad and Chris visiting within the next few months, Edinburgh Round II will definitely be in order and I would like to see something new! You’re looking at £7.50 for adult entry, £6 for students and seniors and free for under 16s! Not sure if it’s worth the money, but pictures of the outside at least are worth the £1 – 2 bus fee!

Hope some of that helps someone out there somewhere who’s interested in hitting up magnificent Edinburgh. It’s truly an amazing city…

Lots of love & Merry Christmas Eve!

The Land of MacDonald & the Search for Nessie.

I never thought I could walk to the Old Town from St. Andrew’s Square in 1°C temperature and not feel frozen to the bone, but after a day in the Highlands dealing with -13°C, anything above freezing didn’t feel quite so awful. After 13 hours of touring (mostly on bus) and 400+ miles covered, I can say that I have seen a good majority of Scotland, albeit briefly. The tour that I did today with Timberbush was the longest one day tour offered in the whole of Britain – from Edinburgh to Loch Ness/Inverness and back. Once you undertake the tour, you realize how far Loch Ness is from Edinburgh. The views of the Highlands make the journey worth it, but if you have the time, a two-day tour (also offered by the company) would probably be more fruitful.

I started the day bright and early, with a 7AM wake-up call and was at the Timberbush pick-up point in front of Edinburgh Castle by 745A. On the way to our first stop, we passed by Stirling Castle & the Wallace Monument, but the fog was a bit too thick to get a real glimpse of either site. The Wallace Monument was erected in the 1800s but is a testament to William Wallace (famously portrayed by Mel Gibson in ‘Braveheart’), Scotland’s most famous hero from the 13th century. We also passed by Doune Castle, made famous by Monty Python & the Holy Grail. Funny enough, our guide mentioned that the gift shop sells coconut shells for people looking to re-create the famous clip-clopping of horseshoes along the nearby paths (if you’ve seen the movie, you understand)!

Our first stop at 10A was in a town called Kilmahog, where we grabbed coffee, morning nibbles and some scenic views of the passing lowlands. We also got to see Hamish, the famous Highland Cow that lives in the region. She was born in 1993, making her nearly 17. Apparently in ‘hairy coo’ years, that’s the equivalent of being a centenarian:

After our stop, the scenery noticed a dramatic change as we crossed the border of what is typically thought to be the lowland/highland turning point. One of the dead giveaways when leaving the lowlands and entering the Highlands? The signage. The road signs are written in two languages – Gaelic & English, with Gaelic taking precedence; it is spoken in the Highlands by some natives in order to keep the language alive.

The snow was a bit intense in the Highlands – it looked as if the earth was completely blanketed with cotton. At some points, there was only a sliver of blue sky separating the snow-covered grounds with the clouds in the sky. The views are pretty dramatic when the terrain begins getting rugged and the pictures were pretty incredible. The sunrise over the mountains made for some amazing shots as we traveled through Rob Roy Country and entered Glencoe. The Three Sisters (the three peaks which overlook Glen Coe) are absolutely stunning:

As we entered Glencoe, we got to hear the story of the MacDonald Clan massacre, something that I found particularly interesting considering my ties to the great Clan MacDonald. Interestingly enough, the mountains that we passed through was the area that the MacDonald Clan escaped into when they were attacked by the Campbell Clan in 1692. Apparently, the MacDonald Clan took in the Campbell Clan for a few weeks, feeding them and sheltering them before the Campbell Clan turned on the MacDonalds, intending to massacre all persons under 70. When the MacDonalds heard the ruckus and fled, they fled into these snowy mountains. Ironically, a visitor center was built just a few years back and the man put in charge was a Campbell. As you can probably imagine, that didn’t go over so well.

After Glencoe and a quick bite for lunch, we headed up to Loch Ness. Along the path that we followed there were a total of four lochs (lakes) that we were able to see (Loch Linnhe, Loch Ness, Loch Lochy, Loch Urr). The white snow, bright sunshine and lack of wind made for the most amazing views – the water was incredibly still. Some of the smaller lakes and ponds were actually frozen to the point that you could probably ice skate on them!

After hours of driving, we made it to Loch Ness at around 215P and jumped on a cruise boat for an hour cruise on the lake. I tried desperately to look for Nessie, but the peat-saturated water made it difficult to see below the surface (no doubt adding to the enigmatic nature of the loch and the monster). Aside from the tale of the Loch Ness monster (which apparently dates back to the 6th century), the lake itself is pretty fascinating. It’s 24 miles long and 1 – 2 miles wide, but is better known for its depth: around 750 feet deep throughout with parts going down to 1000 feet. If you were to take all of the bodies of water in the rest of Britain (all bodies – lakes, rivers, ponds, etc, — from England + Wales) and added them together, they wouldn’t fill up Loch Ness.

The tour was gorgeous and totally worth the £34 (with student discount) day trip price. The downside to December is that the days are so incredibly short – the sun began setting during our 3P cruise and the skies were completely black by 430P. If you were to go in the summer, there would be a stark contrast – daylight that goes on forever and completely different (green) views. Either way, I would totally recommend Timberbush tours. Our tour guide, Billy, was awesome (his accent didn’t’ hurt – gotta love the Scottish accent!) and there were enough stops to take in some great photos. If you have the chance to do a 2 or 3 day trip, I would definitely opt for that though… 400+ miles in 13 hours is a bit intense!

Hope everyone’s holiday season is going well! I’m heading back home (to London) this evening and although I’m sad about leaving beautiful Scotland, I’m happy to be able to sleep in my own bed and celebrate Christmas with friends back in the capital.

Lots of love from the UK,

See more pictures here!

Edinburgh Castle, Camera Obscura & Peter Pan

According to the lady at the Camera Obscura centre, today is the shortest day of the year in good old Edinburgh. The sun starts setting around 230P or so and it’s dark by 4P. Despite that, I managed to sneak a lot of goodies into my relatively short day: a trip to Edinburgh Castle, a visit to Camera Obscura and I’m catching a play of Peter Pan tonight at 7P!

Despite scheduling my wake-up call for 830A, I was up and getting ready by 8A. I hit up the Castle first thing in the morning at 930A (when it opens) to beat the crowds. Unfortunately, Scotland is ridiculously cold at 930 in the morning… the sun doesn’t show it’s face until at least 1030A so I faced some serious snow. Although my ears were fighting frostbite, I got some of the prettiest pictures ever! Being that the Castle is quite the fortress on a hill top (an extinct volcano, actually), the views are absolutely breathtaking:


I didn’t spend that much time at the Castle because it was sooooo cold, but what I did see was amazing! I’m definitely planning on going back when my dad makes a trip over — this is something he would absolutely love!
(I miss you, dad!)

I was a bit upset that they didn’t offer student discounts, but the views from the top of the Castle definitely made the 11 pounds worth it!

I also stopped in this cool store right outside of the castle that’s separated into three sections: tour bookings, a cafe and a weaver that creates tartans, kilts, etc. There was also a section dedicated to this Diablo-looking gear:

There’s an actual blacksmith that makes these swords (he lives about 10 miles from the Castle)… there were loads of these bad boys, plus rapiers, chain mail (which is ridiculously heavy, by the way), maces and axes!

After hitting up the castle, I stopped at Camera Obscura, a place full of optical illusions and amazing panoramic views of Scotland! The 15 minute Camera Obscura business on the 5th floor made the 7 pound ticket worth every penny (pence?)– so cool seeing the whole of the city in a warm teensy tiny room! Check out some of these cool tidbits:

If I were tall and had crazy cankles.

The hot points on my body … interesting.

There were loads of cool optical illusions and holograms, too. Definitely a fun place to take kiddos!

After all that fun, I found a bunch of fun Scottish stores to hit up to grab a few goodies for my loves back in California! Now I’m sitting in a super warm pub down the way from my hotel that has offered me free Wi-fi and delicious pear-flavored Magner’s cider (one of my most favorites). I booked a tour of the Highlands/Loch Ness tomorrow with Timberbush tours and I’m so excited to see a different side of the country! Getting ready to head out and see a live version of Peter Pan at the theatre <3.

Hope everyone’s holiday is fannn-tastic,

Wanna see more amazingness? Check out my album!

Old Town Love!

Alex finally managed to get out of Edinburgh this morning around 10A, which left me with my first day of solo sightseeing. I started by hitting up a few shops on Princes Street (H&M, TopShop, etc.) to pick up some warmer clothing for my trip seeing as how I only had clothing intended for the Mediterranean warmth. Afterwards, I grabbed my luggage from the Royal British Hotel, where Alex & I stayed for two nights and moved them over to a hotel in the Old Town, where I’ll be staying for the remainder of my journey. I was actually a bit sad to be moving out of my Royal British Hotel residence — the people were great and the rooms were super comf for the price! Though the New Town really isn’t that new, there is definitely a stark contrast between Old Town and New Town. After crossing the bridge, I felt like I’d fallen through a rabbit hole into old world Scotland: narrow streets, cobblestone roads and kilt makers galore. The architecture is absolutely stunning and the shops were entirely too cute.

My hotel in Old Town is way better than I expected (despite not having internet). The room is massive, the bathroom is practically as big as my room in London and the view is stellar! Check this out (this is just half of my room!):

The view:

After walking down the main thoroughfare, the Royal Mile, I stumbled across St. Giles Cathedral (and a statue of Adam Smith)! The Cathedral was absolutely gorgeous and admission was free so I was able to pop in and take a quick look around.

I grabbed some tour information and am working on planning out the next three days of my adventure. I think I’m going to hit up Rosslyn Chapel first thing in the morning (10A) and then check out Edinburgh Castle in the afternoon from 1 – 5P or so! After that, I’m heading to the Lyceum Theatre to check out Peter Pan around 7P! I’m so excited to see all the history in the town — it’s seriously amazing! Thus far, I would have to say that Edinburgh is the most inspiring city I have seen. Just stepping outside and looking around is breathtaking — the history is palpable and the buildings are incredible. Plus, the pride Scots take in their country is pretty exciting — so many fun Scottish stores and proud, haggis-eating Scotsmen.

I’m still hoping to do a trip to the Highlands & Loch Ness on Tuesday and I’m leaving Wednesday to figure out what tickles my fancy. Despite the fact that my bones are frozen, I’m loving this town! Hoping to catch the Ghost Tour tonight at 930P. Edinburgh is supposed to be the most haunted town in the world… hoping I don’t get too frightened :)

Lots of love,

Want to see more pics of snow-covered Scotland? Click here to see the album! Also, keep up with my tweets in the Play-by-Play section to the right. I’ve been tweeting loads of pictures as my adventures continue!

Snowy Scotland!

Once again, I’m bundled up in my hotel room for the second night with warm porridge from Marks & Spencer, hot chocolate & Lily Allen singing in the background. Alex is staying for night number two after her second flight in a two-day span was cancelled. After she spent two hours waiting at the airport, Easy Jet announced her flight cancellation and she’s opting for the train back to London tomorrow morning instead. Outside the window to our room, there’s snow covering the nearby buildings and a Christmas market lighting up the dark Scottish sky. Despite the fact that the days are rather short, the town is really a gorgeous sight.

After running into Edinburgh Castle, snow and oddly gorgeous mausoleums, we did a bit of shopping for Scottish goodies followed by a mini whiskey tasting! Although snow is slippery and ridiculously cold, it does make for the most beautiful pictures of life! Normal roads are a thousand times prettier when they’re covered with snow.

Our whiskey tasting was super mini, but my three baby swigs comprised the most Scotch I’ve ever had in my life! The smell of it normally makes me sick, but since I’m in Scotland now, I feel obliged to live like the Scots do!

I’m now deciding what to do tomorrow in terms of sightseeing. Roslin Chapel and some other goodies are on my list of must-sees. I bought a ticket to see a live production of Peter Pan at the local theatre on Monday and am booking a Loch Ness/Highlands tour for Tuesday to get the most out of my Scottish excursion!

Any must-see sights in Scotland? I have tomorrow and Monday to fill with goodies!

Sending love and warm thoughts,

Malta, Days 3 & 4

So, now that we’re finally settled, it’s time to re-cap days three and four in magnificent Malta. Wednesday was a visit to the beautiful Blue Grotto in the morning (a place that came highly recommended by my grandmother and my late grandfather), followed by an evening of family fun with Sylvana & Joe and a night out in Paceville (pronounced Pah-tchay-ville).  We spent Thursday exploring the capital city of Valletta, followed by our last supper, courtesy of Teddy & Angela.

Wednesday’s weather made for a perfect sight-seeing day. Though a ferry to the Blue Grotto wasn’t really on the agenda (it was too blustery), we had an amazing view and got some great shots of the water from above — the area was seriously fantastic; definitely a must-see for anyone in Malta!


After our Blue Grotto trip, we checked out some other old (3500 years-plus) temples and got a pretty sweet glimpse of the island of Filfla (you can see it in the background)! It’s super tiny and uninhabited — it looks like a big rock floating in the water <3.

Our dinner on Wednesday was super delish & entirely too much fun with two kiddos running around.

For one of the first times since my grandpa passed away, I was reminded of how much I miss seeing him and talking with him. I felt an urge around day two to call him and use my newly-acquired Maltese skills and suddenly remembered that he wasn’t there anymore… definitely made me a bit sad, but it was nice being able to see where he was born and where his family came from.

After our dinner and family time, we headed out for a far-too-late night in Paceville, courtesy of one Paul Sebastian (aka best tour guide ever). After getting home at around 230A and enjoying three qaghaq tal-ghasel, I felt I had done my work in annihilating my poor family’s kitchen.

We hit up Valletta on Day 4 and it definitely ties with Mdina for being the cutest city! There are so many fun shops there and loads of cute cafes & eateries (and gorgeous views)! We had a seriously delish lunch at Cafe Jubilee before departing. Paul had mentioned the Maltese chain earlier and it definitely lived up to expectations — good food and totally affordable!

Missing the sunshiney days and happy people of Malta already!

To see the whole Malta album, click here!